One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started writing was to equate the word “editing” with merely correcting grammar and spelling. Although that is certainly an integral part of the editing process, it is by no means the only one. It wasn’t until I started working in publishing that I realized there were names for the multiple stages of editing that a published work of writing undergoes, along with a recommended order of doing them. In the fanfiction community especially (where I got my start as a writer), “beta readers” will often edit multiple levels at the same time, but for writers who are considering selling their work, it can make sense to go through the more formal editorial process.
First comes developmental editing, then copyediting, and finally—just before the piece is published—proofreading. Aspiring authors can help critiquers by signaling what kind of editing they’re looking for, i.e., saying whether one is willing to rewrite entire sections of a piece, or whether one wants to keep the bulk of the text intact but just have it polished. By using the jargon associated with the different levels of editing, authors can communicate their needs quickly and also begin to learn the language of professional publishing.
Put simply, developmental editing means editing for big-picture issues. In fiction, this is the stage when the editor comments on plot, characterization, pacing, point-of-view, and other higher-order concerns. In non-fiction, this is where the editor comments on the strength of the argument, the order in which the material is presented, and whether any sections need further expansion or can be shortened. Since the entire manuscript is subject to change, style and grammatical issues are ignored. This is because the time spent pointing out these little things might be wasted if the writer deletes and rewrites the paragraph from scratch!
Developmental editing can be accomplished by printing off a copy of the manuscript and writing in the margins, or by leaving comments in the word processor. Once you have finished leaving comments, it is most helpful for the writer if you can also summarize and explain the biggest issues in a letter format, which is a better medium for talking about issues that affected entire scenes or multiple parts of the manuscript. If you find yourself tempted to make changes to the text itself, you are probably getting into copyediting territory. Restrict yourself to comments only and you can help avoid falling into that trap.
The stages of writing that most often undergo developmental editing are outlines and synopses, as well as first and second drafts. The author decides whether to make the suggested changes and resubmits their work for review by an agent, editor, or beta readers.
To improve your developmental editing skills, you can read writing reference books on those higher-order concerns (there are far too many to list here). Another option is to read and analyze a lot of books in your preferred genre to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. Editing isn’t just about having high standards and being able to determine “good” from “bad” writing. It means being able to identify what makes the writing “good” or “bad” and what specific steps the author can take to improve it. Below are some books on developmental editing itself.
- Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers by Scott Norton
- An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors by Barbara Sjoholm
Copyediting entails rewriting or formatting parts of the manuscript (also known as the “copy”) for the correct style and grammar. Grammar is what they subject us to in middle and high school, but novice writers may not know what “style” means in the context of editing. Because a lot of writing “rules” are actually just guidelines or precedent, publishers pick a style guide (like Chicago or MLA) to ensure consistency. Publishers may also develop an in-house style guide for additional rules specific to their intellectual properties or publications. A big part of copyediting is making sure that all parts of the manuscript follow the rules set by the style guides, so attention to detail is important.
Copyediting usually takes place after one or more rounds of developmental editing has taken place, such as during the author’s third or final draft. A diligent author completes a copyediting pass of their own before sending it to others. Even if the author is not versed in the finer points of grammar and style, re-reading one’s own work helps catch blatant errors and incomplete sentences. When performing a copyedit, the editor either prints out the manuscript and uses specialized marks to denote revisions, or they will “Track Changes” in the chosen word processor and wade into the text itself, deleting and rewriting as necessary. Often, a copyeditor will do multiple passes, gauging the kinds of mistakes the author is prone to make and then rereading the manuscript or using a word processor’s advanced search functions to identify where else in the work the issue lies.
There are three levels of copyediting: light, medium, and heavy. Light copyediting is faster and involves fixing only those things that are incorrect grammatically or stylistically, and it might involve pointing out sentences or clauses that are unclear (but not making the changes). Heavy (or substantive) editing takes much longer. It includes light copyediting plus wading into the text and making changes to improve how clear or concise the writing is, such as restructuring entire sentences (or large portions thereof). Medium copyediting is somewhere between the two extremes. (For more specifics about what each sublevel of copyediting comprises, see this website.)
The biggest challenge facing a copyeditor is resisting the urge to rewrite something because they would have written it differently, such as exchanging one word for another because it sounds better to them. Doing so dilutes the writer’s unique voice and risks losing the writer’s trust.
To help others polish their writing for grammar and style, editors need to have a strong working knowledge of the English language (either American or British) and the style guide they use. The longer one works as a copyeditor, the more rules one can remember by rote, but a big part of this job is knowing where to look to find the correct answer! Below are some books that will help writers and copyeditors alike, rated from “most hardcore/for professionals” at the top to “every writer should read” towards the end.
- The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn
- Random House Webster’s Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation
- Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and The Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty
After developmental editing and copyediting, the final manuscript is laid out as it is going to appear in print (or in a digital medium). Traditionally this was done during the “proofs” stage of the publishing process (when the printer sends sample printouts of the work before printing the entire order), but because most publishing happens digitally now, you can see the full layout on-screen without having to wait for actual proofs from the printer.
During this phase, the proofreader goes through each page with a fine-toothed comb to spot typos, glaring errors, formatting or layout issues, and other emergency grammar and spelling fixes. Proofreaders might print out the document and make proofreader’s marks, or they can use Adobe Reader to make comments on a PDF (here is a guide to using Adobe’s annotation toolset). With the modern Adobe Reader application, you can easily select text and start typing to automatically use the “replace text” tool, or you can select text and press the Delete or Backspace key to quickly use the strikethrough text tool.
Proofreaders need to have the same skillset as copyeditors, and they are basically making sure that anything major that the copyeditor didn’t find gets noticed before it’s too late and the work is published. Often, these problems were actually introduced during the copyediting process when big rewrites were involved, but mistakes happen, and no one person can ever catch everything. So it’s good to have multiple proofreaders for the same document.
One challenge facing a proofreader is the lure of doing extra copyediting at this stage. Every extra correction is another opportunity for the person inputting the changes to introduce a new mistake that wasn’t there before. Do what you can to point out the worst offenders, but resist the temptation to go beyond what would be considered light copyediting.
Hopefully, you now have a better sense of how critiquing and editing works in the professional world of publishing. Most importantly, I hope you can see why each stage exists as separate from the previous one, such as why it doesn’t make sense to copyedit a manuscript before all the developmental editing has been completed. Of course, time (and sometimes cost) can play a role in how much editing can be done to a piece of writing, but as long as quality is the author’s goal, it makes sense to invest the effort!